A Space Within:

The remarkable new complex at The Kennedy Center made its début with a two week festival, set to culminate on September 22.

by Patrick D. McCoy

There is just something about a new space that seems to create a buzz and excitement.  But what makes this euphoria around The Reach at The Kennedy Center most exciting is its capacity to make the audience a part of the ‘behind the scenes’ experience.  Sleek walls, sweeping staircases, glistening glass and the latest technology are within one’s reach.  Designed by the New York based firm Steven Holl Architects, The Reach officially opened its doors to the public last week with a festive parade and many other celebratory activities.  A performance of Beethoven’s masterful Ninth Symphony was mounted by a diverse mass choir of several hundred voices prepared by Stanley J. Thurston and conducted by Thomas Wilkins with the National Symphony Orchestra.


Michon Boston (L) moderating panel discussion with Richard Smallwood, filmmaker Alan Elliott, and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II.

One of the trademarks of The Reach is the sentiment that resonates at the mention of its name:  the accessibility of intimate performance experiences and conversations that might not be readily experienced in the context of a larger space. Among several of those experiences was a discussion that took a look at the film “Amazing Grace” featuring the  legendary Queen of Soul-the late Aretha Franklin. In a conversation moderated by Michon Boston, panelists including prominent minister Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, filmmaker Alan Elliott and gospel legend Richard Smallwood.


The audience was treated to a moving performance by Richard Smallwood and Vision.

The panelists all reminisced on their moments with Franklin.  Among the ones that stood out were the memories that poured from Smallwood.  “I was an Aretha fanatic since I was about 18 years old as a student at Howard University.  I did not meet her until around 2002-2003.  We became friends, but who she was never got old because for me Aretha is one of the most amazing voices that ever lived.  No one can duplicate her” Smallwood expressed.   He went on to share about a special phone call that he almost missed.   “I wanted her to work on a project with me and my phone rang.  I am the type of person that if I don’t see the caller-id or if I don’t know you I won’t answer it.  So {the call} came up ‘number unknown…I was about to walk out the door, but something said ‘answer it.’  I said ‘hello’ and a voice said “Richard Smallwood” and said ‘yes’…”this is Aretha Franklin!”  I went into shock” Smallwood shared.  The panel discussion was followed by a musical performance by Richard Smallwood and his acclaimed ensemble “Vision.”  A viewing of the film “Amazing Grace” followed on the Reach plaza.


Often, a bridge to the community is extended through music.  This resonated with a concert that featured Duke Ellington School of the Arts  a cappella ensemble The Mellow-Tones, bass Soloman Howard and Howard University’s premiere jazz vocal ensemble Afro Blue.  Opening the program with one selection, The Mellow-Tones melted the hearts of the audience immediately with their exceptional vocalism and finesse that left the audience wanting more.  Notably, the majestic voice of Soloman Howard filled the space of the Skylight Pavilion with the exuberance of Henry Purcell’s “Arise, Ye Subterranean Winds” from The Tempest.  Florid runs executed with poise and agility was the hallmark of his performance. Rounding out the performance was the musical panache of Afro Blue.  The Howard University ensemble featured several outstanding soloists and also was joined by the acclaimed jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, which was an unexpected, but very welcomed surprise.

Dr. Charles Limb with panelists Chris Sullivan, Esperanza Spalding and Soloman Howard

Operatic bass and 2019 Marian Anderson Award Recipient at The Kennedy Center Soloman Howard, world-renowned jazzbassist and singer Esperanza Spalding and acclaimed beat boxer Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan joined surgeon Dr. Charles Limb for a special discussion entitled “Music and the Voice:  Brain Mechanisms of Vocal Mastery and Creativity.”  During the discussion, Limb engaged each of the acclaimed panelists in conversation about their musical backgrounds, influences and genres of performance.  As the evening progressed, Limb showed and discussed the findings from brain scans of each of the artist, showing distinct variations in brain activity based on certain factors such as style, preparation and level of difficulty.  This type of discussion allowed the members of the audience to see music through a totally different lens.

After a gripping performance of “The Just and the Blind” artists Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Cecily, Drew Dollaz and Daniel Bernard Romain receive the applause of the audience.

Thought provoking conversations are a part of the fabric of The Reach.  “The Just and the Blind” by Marc Bamuthi Joseph sparked an unspoken dialogue among the audience through spoken word, narrative, dance and music. Joined by violinist Daniel Bernard Romain, singer Cecily and street dancer pioneer Drew Dollaz, the work is an expressive creation that explores the probing issues of the black experience including racial profiling, imprisonment and the relationship between fathers and sons.  With original music composed by Romain, coupled with the fervent resonant words delivered by Joseph, the deep emotions of the work are further centered through the boundless dance vignettes by Drew Dollaz.  These sometimes difficult subjects to communicate are presented in a way that reaches to the depth of the human experience.



Our experience at The Reach ended with a large scale concert on The Plaza featuring performances by soprano Renée Fleming, jazz pianist Jason Moran, singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo and Howard University’s Afro-Blue ended our outing at the new venue.

Remaining performances at The Reach continue through Sept 22:



A native of Petersburg, VA, Patrick holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and a MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory.  Formerly the Performing Arts Columnist for Washington Life Magazine, he currently is a freelance writer, publishing articles for several noted publications, including The Washington Post, Early Music America Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, CBS Washington and Examiner.com.  He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., The American Choral Directors’ Association, a member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors and a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.  He serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD. Visit http://patrickdmccoy.com